My friends are moving from a large house to a smaller condo. They have recently made the difficult decision to dump the walls of books that they have accumulated over the years. I encouraged them to do so, despite any attachment they might feel.
I have weaned myself from books several times in my life. At 17, I left home for a year and then went in the service. In my time away, everything from my childhood disappeared when my parents left the family home for simpler quarters. (I am not sure what was going on in their lives, but I had to struggle to forgive them for discarding or distributing all of the relics of my childhood: not simply my books, but my drawings, poems, awards, mementoes, record collection…even the baseball glove and fishing gear…perhaps this is another memoir.) So… no childhood books.
When I eventually hit college, I did so with a vengeance, having begun in the service to read what deserved to be read. I wanted to be an educated man and I indulged myself in reading. By the time I was a senior (…quite a long journey as I worked and studied in a rhythm of self-support and a desire to take too many interesting classes that made the 4 year journey an 8 year one.), I was an incorrigible snob about my books. One self-reflective afternoon, I concluded that I kept many books stacked across my meager rooms, as badges to my ego. “Visitors, see how smart I am!” I lugged boxes down to the Venice Strand and sold them for pennies each. It felt right. Having read an essay by Herman Hesse on culling his books, I had decided to save art, poetry, and philosophy and jettison the rest, save a few good reference books.
After grad school, having collected still more books, I stored my boxes in my new in-laws’ garage when I ventured off to teach overseas. In my two year absence, the garage flooded. Again, my shelves were wiped clean. Yet, the period that followed featured a prolonged phase of self-discovery and more books….lots of them. And as a teacher and eventual administrator, books seemed to collect around me, and, perhaps again, they added a certain gravitas to my office, living room, and study. While I did make regular efforts to donate the overload to the school or faculty library, when we eventually moved from the Headmaster’s house to town, it took a 16’ trailer stacked across and three boxes high to lug our books to our new home. I was chagrined.
Rather than impose this pile on our new home, and once again not wishing to use books as décor and ego-extension, I made a large island in the garage and began to sort. Fortunately, we have a great bookstore…in fact it is my all-time favorite used book store, Bart’s Books, right here in town. They were more than generous to take many books off my hands for, of course, credit for more books. (From this transaction, and the subsequent return of books bought, I am not sure that I have had to buy a book at Bart’s in the past eight years.)
I am now down to the last, more exactly the second to last, purge of books from my shelves. I am retired from teaching and administration of schools. I will perhaps write. But once again I will thumb through my shelves and trot boxes off to Bart’s or the local Library. Meredy, who heads Oak Grove School, got a few boxes for the faculty library. Yet, in the coming weeks, I will again partake in culling my shelves. Except for the wear and tear on my back, I look forward to it. Again, it will be poetry, philosophy and art that will most likely make the cut. I may peddle a few 1st editions on eBay. At this point, it is not just the ridding of clutter. There is a finality to it…the books I will not go back to…the ones that I always meant to read and will now admit not…a few authors that I love who have earned their own shelf over the years.
And that is just the shelves. I have also purged my files, which by the way, feels great. The books, on the other hand, are emotional, like saying goodbye to old friends. The poet, Donald Justice, wrote:
Men at forty
Learn to close softly
The doors to rooms they will not be
Coming back to.
I will lovingly put them in their boxes, some with a final thumb-through, and get on with what will fill my shelves in this next incarnation.